Thursday, April 25, 2024
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We need a Commonwealth army, not a European paper tiger


The Sun reports that the UK is being invited to front some new European (but not EU) force. How very flattering, and yet utterly pointless. But of course that won’t stop it happening.

The strongest armed forces in Europe belong to the UK (just), the French and the Poles. Everyone tends to forget the latter, but with Uncle Vlad closing in the Poles take soldiering seriously. And yes, with us leaving, the risible EU aspirations to their own armed forces suffer another blow.

Which is not to say that there is not a problem: the defence of Europe against Russia relies on NATO and NATO is weak, especially on the eastern side of the Atlantic. UK armed forces are at around 25 per cent of the combat power they were in 1990. Other European nations are far, far weaker. Which means that our defence against Russia relies heavily on the United States – and much of our political class does not admire the US Commander-in-Chief, Don Trump. And the Don has (rightly) pointed out that the European members could do a lot more to defend themselves at their own expense. (In the 1980s UK defence spending was 6 per cent of GDP, now it is just under 2 per cent. The USA spends 3.5 per cent of a much larger GDP; in the 1980s it was around 7 per cent).

Worse, NATO has expanded eastward, which may be a political advance, but the Baltics are a military liability. Turkey may or may not find itself under attack, and Assad’s Syria is supported by Vlad. NATO may yet be tested in ways that its founders had not anticipated. If you are a Eurocrat, the two most powerful contributors to NATO, US and UK, are outside your control. Of course, if you had an ounce of common sense you would realise that the world is less stable than you hoped and significantly increase your defence capabilities. However that costs money which you are unwilling to spend, and entails rebuilding an industry and organisation that is suffering from 20 years of neglect.

So you go for the simple solution – invent a rapid action force, knock out some PR guff and wait for the next bit of news to distract attention. The history of rapid action forces is primarily one of PR, and that of rapidly conceived military operations (eg Gallipoli, Arnhem, Suez, Iraq 2) is unfortunate. Rapid military responses require highly trained troops and pre-arranged logistics. This is entirely possible (eg the US Reforger programme in the Cold War) but expensive.

In the current climate of cuts, cuts, and cuts no serving general is likely to criticise any initiative that puts defence higher on the agenda. Indeed there are attractions: new organisations need commanders and staffs. Rapid reactions (particularly humanitarian ones) mean suntans and there might be a few more quid from the Treasury. Thus the military establishment may well support this future fiasco.

So what of the political approach? Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has been pretty quiet – presumably having been muzzled by the Treasury. But the sensible line is simple: Europe is defenced by NATO. We are already part of NATO and thus any additional European organisation is unnecessary. If one is worried about Russian expansion, building (or buying) tanks is the answer.

It is hard for Remoaners to accept, but most of the world is not in Europe, or even close to it. Most of the world is far poorer than Europe and most of the likely problems in the world (including the military ones) lie outside Europe. We should now be shaping defence policy to get far closer to our historic allies from the Commonwealth, which comprises 53 countries and a third of the world’s population.

Worse, for Remoaners, it is the first acknowledgement that the EU needs the UK more than it chooses to admit.

Mrs May should simply slap this concept down as an irrelevance. I therefore anticipate the creation of another paper tiger.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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